Sunday, April 21, 2013

Paradigm shifts and Astronomy

Paradigms shift from the edge, not from the middle! It wasn't the hot-air balloonists that invented powered flight it was two bicycle makers that wanted to take the exhilaration of the wind in their face to the next level.

Amidst the raw emotion of the terrible things we have seen this week, and yet the strengthened hope created by people coming together around a common cause, and sense of community - we see education funding and budgetary pressure conspiring against the things that can also bring us together: understanding and expanded knowledge.

All across the world we are seeing external issues of sovereign risk, budget deficits, GFC cutbacks, the currency wars, fluctuating commodity prices pushing in on the Education Sector. The "do more with less" principle of the 2=20 mantras (cut 20% over 2 years) of old world consultants can no longer wring any moisture from the dry rag. Productivity is the key, and crowd-sourcing turns the entire equation on its head - DOING MORE WITH MORE!

Whilst many disagreed with Paul Zane Pilzer's 1990 "abundant wealth" approach that stated Technology was the ultimate multiplier that could finally over come Keynes' scarcity of resources, it is exactly this abundance principle that is driving Planetary Resources to reach out and mine asteroids, as presumably asteroids are outside the "closed system" of earths scarce resources and abundantly plentiful. So lets stop right there, before we take it to the ultimate end point of creating gravity tractors filled with anti-mining protestors, unwittingly towing asteroids around while they complain about all the new worlds that won't be seeded. (Come on....we need a little light-hearted material in such a difficult week - my 18 year old, budding science fiction author son, thought that was hilarious)

This is starting to sound dangerously like an opinion piece (and we know how dangerous it can be to have an opinion with all this freedom of speech around) so lets get back to the facts! ;-)

This week Dr Pamela Gay, someone who is one of the greatest thought-leaders in "getting more from more", made an impassioned plea to not lump all her funding for "new paradigm" astronomy education and science research in with "old world" budgetary consolidation and cutbacks. As seen in the diagram above we know the University Model is under extraordinary pressure, so why would you kill the goose who is laying the golden egg of a new era of crowd-engaged science research and education.

Go with me on this:
* Universities are under pressure
* Money is scarce
* Math and Science literacy standards are declining

And yet

* The STEM curriculum has been put in place
* Social media and online collaboration are driving new communities of interest
* There are torrents of data "left over" from many science projects
* People are enjoying engaging with good communicators who can explain the wonders around us
* The good communicators are plugging energetic citizen scientists into quality projects
* Citizen scientists are being rewarded with the richest of gifts - a sense of community and belonging

Much of this activity in time will be self-sustaining. Uwingu was set up for exactly this purpose, to use social media and crowd-sourcing to raise money for science research. They have been running a naming competition for exo-planet Alpha Centauri Bb where people can spend $1 to vote for their favourite planet name. They have exercised their due diligence and pointed out there is no guarantee the names will ever stick and have made it a "fun thing" and of course people's competitive spirit has kicked in.

The result has been a modest success, but still a great boundary pushing exercise, that has produced some fantastic potential names and raised over $6000 USD that will go towards science research.

The competition closes on April 22nd and there is still time to participate in the fun and help fund science research. Each planet carries a Citation that details the thinking behind the nomination and these are well worth a read, as many are well thought out and significant to science, sci-fi authors, and famous scientists and astronauts. I have nominated Citizen Science as my contribution, although I was tempted to nomiate "The Australian Labor Party" as they seem to be on a very different planet, also cutting another $2.3 BILLION (Aud) out of University education funding this week.

My citation for Citizen Science Reads:
Citizen Science is a term for leveraging the power of "the crowd" to process torrents of scientific data by leveraging the extra effort of "science aware" citizens through social media. Citizen Scientists are engaged to tap their enthusiasm for science and provide a faster and more innovative path to science goals by sorting and categorizing data and highlighting points of interest that professional scientists can explore with greater depth.

Citizen Science is currently coming 6th behind the first three placeholders of Rakhat, Caleo and Amara.

Rakhat is the planet at the center of Mary Doria Russell's "The Sparrow", a first contact novel about a Jesuit mission to the first identified inhabited planet. Caleo (pronounced ka.le.o) is Latin for "I am warm or hot" also figuratively "I am warm, new or fresh", again a very suitable name for a planet that is clearly not in the Goldilocks Zone.

All this of course has been predictably poo-hoo-ed by the IAU who this week issued a press release assuring people they are doing their money.

Once again they miss the point, people who band together around a community of interest and put their money on the table for the common good, are creating new business models, and new methods are getting "more done with more". Once upon a time, we called these types of organizations co-ops. The Dairy Co-Ops of 30-40 years ago have been monstered by market economics, but the community spirit and sense of belonging that under pins much of our human need lives on.

Dr Pamela Gay has the most marketable commodity of all in her skillset - the ability to answer endless questions that are never treated as silly, and communicate science in a way that makes you want to be part of it. After 30 years of corporate life, my interest in Astronomy and in particular exo-planets was re-engaged by a seemly silly statement - "we will find a water world just waiting for a B Grade movie to be filmed on it". That statement was made by Pamela on a podcast - new media - reaching fresh faces through the new economic platform of the iTunes store.

What an impact that one "silly" statement has had: My telescope now does over 60 hours of science every month, it is a vital part of H06 the "Top 30" asteroid hunting Observatory run by, is used by Universities from Seoul to our friends in Boston, and I have been graciously included as a co-author on two science papers, due to my own observations.

LESSON: People WILL engage and contribute for the greater good, enabling science and education to do "more with more". Resources are abundant if you know how to gather people, leverage the crowd, and keep their strengths aligned to the goals of a community. Dr Pamela Gay and her amazing staff will prevail! The real question is will NASA be the beneficiaries or the spectators as this happens.

Astronomy's Paradigm is shifting - FAST! Are you going to make it happen, watch it happen, or wonder what happened!

Please support them at Cosmoquest.

Vote for Citizen Science at

Further reading: Astroswanny's great article on Astronomy 3.0 in the December 2012 newsletter of Variable Stars South.

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